My book of choice this summer, working as I have throughout August, was published in 1888 and deals with the introduction and amendments to the Local Government Act 1888. Lucky me. It’s a good job I write for Room151 and not Condé Nast Traveller.
The period did of course herald the most significant change in local authority structures there has ever been: the creation of county councils and county borough councils and the tiers beneath, modelled on the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.
The Act was brought about by the demands of the Liberal Party, a price the conservatives were required to pay to obtain the liberals’ support as a minority government.
I only mention it because it occurs to me quite how amazing central government’s grasp of local government was. Their care in ensuring that local government was well structured and fit for purpose is in clear and stark contrast to the position we find ourselves in at present.
Local government is in a difficult position. There are lots of strands and at present they do not seem to me to neatly tie together.
In 1888 and indeed when I started in local government shortly after, there was no question that a job at a council was a job for life; positions in local government were keenly sought after. There can be no doubt whatsoever that that is no longer the case. I have not done the sums but it is my view that the number of chief executives, monitoring officers and section 151 officers leaving in the last 12 months is quite extraordinary. Of course, the rest of council staff has also suffered from the fallout caused by austerity. However, I think the departure of so many at the top is a considerable worry.
Sustainable local authorities are also a concern. The thing is that local authorities are quite deregulated, in a way that they haven’t been for some time. The Audit Commission particularly through the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and the financial resources study that went with it, gave a good indication of the good, the bad and the ugly. When the Audit Commission ceased to exist there seemed to be two possible challengers for the sustainability role: the NAO and the LGA. In the end all we are left with is the voluntary peer review of the LGA. There seems to be some surprise that only the better authorities seek peer reviews. I am not sure why that should surprise anyone.
The continuation of austerity in local government means that the interesting mix of services offered to the locality to meet local need has largely ceased. The concern is that local authorities may be challenged in the courts for failure to deliver satisfactory statutory services. Local authority members must find this most irksome. They were not, by and large, elected to stop services but to offer greater opportunity to their electorate.
In many authorities, there is a tension between elected members not wanting to stop things and officers facing the reality of a balanced budget. The statutory officers are there to ensure that expediency and shortcuts do not affect the lawful budget.
At the moment, it is difficult to see where this is going to end. There is, as I keep saying, a distinct lack of leadership. Can we afford to keep the current structure? Are the services provided those that should be provided in this day and age? Is anybody looking with vision at the long term? The main concern is, not unreasonably, with fudge and muddle.
The LGA has an impossible task to find a visionary consensus among its members. I am interested in what role the secretaries of state think they have in the future of local government. If their role is to support and champion local government the recent past does not support that.
Local government has diminished from the Victorian days when they provided gas, electricity, water, hospitals ,transport etc. Return to that would be foolish but there is an urgent need to be visionary about the future before all opportunities pass us by.